The more we study the Bible, the more clearly the principles of biblical accountability are revealed, often in surprising places. While the book of Job primarily concerns the problem of suffering, it also deals with the problem of friends who try to help us with suffering—our imperfect allies.
What can Job’s friends tell us about accountability? We should at least commend them for trying to do biblical accountability. But we know that Job’s friends failed in major ways, so we should also learn from some key things not to do.
Let’s take a look.
What Did Job’s Friends Do Right?
While Job’s friends are often (and rightly) criticized for how they speak to Job, they actually did better than many of us in showing love and support to their friend. Job’s comforters were not callous or hard-hearted browbeaters. They loved Job, and they did their best to speak truth into his suffering. Let’s see what they did.
They wept with Job over his suffering.
Job 2:12, “When they looked from a distance, they could barely recognize him. They wept aloud, and each man tore his robe and threw dust into the air and on his head.”
When the three friends saw Job’s condition, it made them weep. They were grieved at Job’s suffering, and they weren’t afraid to show it. True friends and allies feel deeply. Their hearts respond to the pain of others.
Romans 12:15 instructs believers to “rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” This kind of compassionate empathy demonstrates love—even if the person in question has made mistakes or fallen into grievous sin (Galatians 6:1-2).
They sat in silence for a week.
Job 2:13, “Then they sat on the ground with him seven days and nights, but no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very intense.”
“Job’s comforter” has come to mean someone who tries to help but only makes things worse. We’ll see the reason for this shortly. But we shouldn’t judge Job’s friends too quickly. How many of us would sit with a grieving friend for a solid week without saying a word?
As allies and partners, we should not offer our advice too quickly. Often, the best thing we can do is sit quietly. When I was training for ministry, it was often said, “People will forget what you say, but they’ll remember that you were there.” Simply being there for a suffering friend can make all the difference.
James 3:1 says, “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we will receive a stricter judgment.” In other words, silence is often best. Don’t pretend to know more than you do—be slow to dole out advice. Proverbs 17:28 adds, “Even a fool is considered wise when he keeps silent — discerning, when he seals his lips.”
You don’t need to have great things to say if you’re willing to sit quietly and support your friend!
They waited until Job was ready to talk.
Job 3:1a, “After this, Job began to speak…”
When the silence was finally broken, Job made the opening statement. While we see quickly the three friends have lots of opinions, they wait to share them until Job has opened up.
James 1:19 instructs us, “My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak.” This advice holds true for accountability relationships. A wise ally knows to listen first.
They spoke (limited) theological truth into suffering.
The book of Job teaches about suffering, and Job’s friends articulate an incorrect theology of suffering. However, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that they also say a lot of true things about God. And they want Job to understand the truth about God, so they apply these things—albeit imperfectly—to Job’s situation.
The three friends all ask challenging questions to Job—questions that can apply to ourselves and our allies:
“Can a mortal be righteous before God? Can a man be more pure than his Maker?” (4:17).
“Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?” (8:3).
“Can you fathom the depths of God or discover the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens—what can you do? They are deeper than Sheol—what can you know?” (11:7-8).
Not only do they challenge Job with questions about God’s character and our condition, but they also offer sound practical advice:
“If I were you, I would appeal to God and would present my case to him. He does great and unsearchable things, wonders without number” (5:8-9).
“Ask the previous generation, and pay attention to what their ancestors discovered, since we were born only yesterday and know nothing. Our days on earth are but a shadow” (8:8-9).
“Redirect your heart and spread out your hands to him in prayer—if there is iniquity in your hand, remove it, and don’t allow injustice to dwell in your tent” (11:13-14).
Part of the reason the book of Job speaks so powerfully is that Job’s friends did so much right. They weren’t idiots or jerks—they were intelligent, kind-hearted friends. The things they got wrong, as we’ll see in a moment, are glaring because they got so many things right.
What Did Job’s Friends Do Wrong?
So, now that we understand the kind of friends they were and the things they got right, let’s look at the mistakes they made. How did Job’s friends ultimately fail with biblical accountability? Ultimately, they made assumptions that proved incorrect.
They lacked wisdom for Job’s situation.
Job 13:5, “If only you would shut up and let that be your wisdom!”
Job’s friends had a lot of biblical knowledge. But, as Old Testament scholar Richard Belcher writes:
“The friends make many true statements about God, but they stumble when they try to apply those statements to Job’s situation. In other words, the main problem is the application of the theology, which is a matter of wisdom.”1
In other words, book-smarts, even Bible book-smarts, don’t always translate to practical life wisdom. This should warn all of us who seek to be allies for someone who struggles. We can know lots of things about God but still fail to wisely apply that knowledge. James 2:19 and Matthew 4:1-11 tell us that even Satan knows the Bible. Knowledge is only the beginning; we need to know how to live it out.
We can see this kind of failure often in the counsel given to those who struggle with porn. “You should stop” is true, but it fails to take into account the many reasons people watch porn and why it’s so tough to quit. Real wisdom seeks to understand the situation before trying to speak truth to it.
They assumed they knew what Job needed.
Job 13:4, “You use lies like plaster; you are all worthless healers.”
Similarly, it doesn’t matter how great your medicine is if you misdiagnose the problem. If you incorrectly assume what someone needs, you’ll give them the wrong solution. Job essentially says this when he lashes out at his friends in chapter 13.
This happens frequently in accountability relationships. If we incorrectly assume the cause of the struggle, the help we offer is likely to miss the point. For this reason, understanding the root causes of pornography addiction or the deeper shame issues underlying a struggle with porn is vitally important.
They misrepresented God’s providence.
Job 42:7, “After the LORD had finished speaking to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.’”
God condemned Job’s three friends for their faulty theology. We noted earlier they got many things right, but they ultimately spoke untruthfully because they assumed they understood how God works. They failed to take into account the mysteries of divine providence, and the complexity of life in a fallen world.
They falsely accused an innocent man.
One of the challenges facing allies in an accountability relationship is lying. Former sex addict Nate Larkin tells the story of repeatedly lying to his accountability partners—and consequently extending his addiction for years.
For this reason, we should appreciate Job’s friends’ attempts to hold Job accountable. However, there comes a point when you have tested someone’s statements, if they hold true, you should believe them. Job’s friends were unloving because “love believes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Unwittingly, they “called good evil, and evil good” (Isaiah 5:20).
What Are the Key Takeaways?
We can summarize the lessons from Job’s friends even more simply. First, they didn’t back away from Job in his suffering. They leaned into their relationship with him, grieved with him, spent time with him, listened to him, and spoke truth to them. As allies, we should strive to emulate this example.
Second, we see the failure of Job’s friends was in their assumptions, about Job’s situation, Job himself, and about God. As allies, we should never assume we know more than we do, and we should be quick to recognize where we need to learn and grow.
1 Richard Belcher, “Job,” in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised, edited by Miles van Pelt (Crossway: 2016), 365.